By Seyoum Tesfaye
27th Feb. 2011 

Lesson # 1: The Loss of Legitimacy

As a given political system, government or regime losses its legitimacy in the eyes of the citizen the possibility of transformative Nonviolent Strategic People’s Uprising becomes more likely.   If the domestic loss of legitimacy is augmented by a corresponding global consensus the possibility of change is favorable. 

Transforming the favorable to inevitable, the inevitable into actuality, is a whole different discussion. The underpinning of all this possibilities is that the status quo has to be totally discredited in the eyes of the “governed”: rejected by the overwhelming majority of the population.  

It is not enough that a given regime losses legitimacy in the eyes of the contending elites or opposition. It must be rejected by the hearts and minds of the overwhelming cross-section of the population in protracted process. Each individual citizen has to come to a conclusion that the presiding regime or government does not represent its interest or voice. The cumulative erosion of thrust will be the foundation that will make change possible.

The whole society does not act like a seasoned symphony under the direction of a superbly qualified conductor. It trusts its own experience and come to terms with its own particular disappointment with the regime first in its own particular way. Seeing the universal disappointment in his or her own experience and linking up with the collective takes time. But in the end the connection or the linkage is made first tentatively but as the end approaches decisively and boldly.

People living in democratic nations have the advantage of utilizing constitutional means to register their disapproval of a given government either by conducting a scheduled election or exercising a no- confidence parliamentary process to change the composition of their representatives as well as to change their respective governments. Due to this fundamental constitutionally mandated right and process, even though hundreds of nonviolent protests are conducted in democratic countries, the chances of peoples’ uprising to usurp the power is very rare.  The protocols are well defined and precedents have been well set enough to go through intensively heated political campaign and come through into a people sanctioned political arrangement for the next four or six years.

In the case of totalitarian, authoritarian and dynastic governance the ideological, political and divine legitimacy of the ruling elite losses it hold on the people as the years turn pages and the people slowly move from disbelief to disapproval (not necessarily verbalized) from disproval to resentment, from resentment to objection, from objection to various form of defiance (active verbalized protest) and finally to collective (national) open rebellion. The gestation period varies. Each countries specific cultural, historical, social and political attributes will have significance impact on the process but in general sense the trajectory is basically the same. Previous failed attempts at changing a government’s policy, the regime itself or the system totally become the foundations of the next effort and the cumulative knowledge base of the people’s “experiment” for change.    

The ever expanding people’s uprising in the Arab world clearly demonstrate the fact that ruling order that has lasted over the last three plus decades has lost legitimacy. Outright brutality, periodic reforms, sham elections and fear mongering have lost their currency and the regimes stand in diametrical opposition to the demand of the overwhelming people. Piecemeal concession and tactical maneuverings have not been able to reconstitute any level of legitimacy to the tattering regimes.  What the president of America is saying about Qadhafi’s government, to a greater extent, applies to the regimes in the Arab world.  The violence level might vary in each country but the main trust of the statement made by president Obama is applicable to Yemen, Bahrain, etc.

On February 26, 2011 a Statement released by the Whitehouse contained the following words:

“The President spoke today with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany…President stated that when a leader’s only means of staying in power is to use mass violence against his own people, he has lost the legitimacy to rule and needs to do what is right for his country by leaving now. The leaders reaffirmed their support for the Libyan people’s demand for universal rights and a government that is responsive to their aspirations, and agreed that Qadhafi’s government must be held accountable. …..”

Each regime leader, when confronted by the people’s uprising, kept reiterating their contribution to the motherland and forgot that, in their selfish desire to maintain power at all cost, even their modest positive contribution at the early days of their coming to power has been dwarfed by their year’s brutality. None of them made the decision to leave power gracefully and set the stage for an orderly transition while they still had the chance and the opportunity. They applied the hammer principle by crashing all nonviolent effort to set up civic societies and political parties. Each level of brutality and intransigence might have added a year or two to their hold of power:  But, in the end, the price for hanging on to power illegitimately is losing all sense of legitimacy, power and, in the worst case scenario, loss of one’s life.

In the case of Eritrea EPLF/ PFDJ leadership’s claim its legitimacy as an extension of its role in leading and ushering in Eritrea’s independence and the Badme War as a source of added legitimacy.  Since it has not established any form of constitutionally based legally elected government it cannot claim any sense of constitutional or legal legitimacy. Leave alone to build a constitutional national frame work, twenty years after independence, it still uses Ethiopian laws to dispense the day to day legal cases. It governs by the use of security apparatus and political intimidation. But the cumulative effect of this kind of governance is that as the years keep rolling the popularity and legitimacy of the government has declined especially after the 1998 war and the emergence of G-15.

Legitimacy provides some modem of outright acquiesce or implied acceptance of the power and authority of a given governing body to manage a nation by the governed. As the overall national and denominational interests of the population come into conflict with the ruling elite’s polices and rules periodic challenges of different magnitude manifest within the society. The powers- to -be resort to draconian methods of handling the legitimate grievances of the people. The un-codified fragile coexistence slowly breaks down. The people’s confidence and trust on the ruling group and the entire government incrementally dissipates. In other words the people and the rulers are headed into diametrically opposed directions and in the end the regime, in the eyes of the majority of the people, loss all sense of legitimacy. This by itself will not make Strategic Nonviolent Change inevitable. It will only lay the foundation for change. The inverse side of this equation is that the people have to get to the point of collectively breaking through their internalized fear. (In the next posting I will address this aspect of the lesson.)

The link between the meltdown of the regime’s legitimacy and the final emergence of the confidence of the people are organically linked. Understanding and grasping this dynamic process is the difference between wishful politicking and artful politicking. Everything has its time. Timing is out of the control of individuals or the regime for that matter. Preparing for the unfolding of this dialectal process is the essential responsibility of the advocates of change. That homework starts by grasping the link between the progressive loss of legitimacy and the incremental nature of the casting off fear. 

The raging struggle in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain etc affirm this cardinal principle. Eritrea will not be the exception.  No amount of machination by the ruling party to hold on to a figment of legitimacy  or a desire to artificially induce the breakdown of the fear barrier, by those who are working to dispose the brutal regime, through adventures means will work. 

The regime in Asmara might try to stifle any possibility of people’s uprising in a last ditch effort to garner some sense of legitimacy and shore up its hold on power by proposing “some form of modest reform” around the 20the Independence Day. This will be a dollar short and a day late. The Eritrean regime has lost all legitimacy. Short of Justice, Human Rights, Rule of Law and democratically elected government nothing will be acceptable.

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